June 15, 2009

No winners in this situation

Itipini is what is known as an “informal settlement.” The organs of government in the municipality have an informal relationship with the community. Most of the time, I think they’d prefer to think it doesn’t exist. That had tragic results this week.

On Wednesday, there was a young resident of Itipini wandering around with a giant bush knife, threatening to kill one of the employees of the Community Project, whom we call Mrs. Nani.
The young man claimed that Mrs. Nani was a witch and had put a spell on his girlfriend. (Snippets of Monty Python immediately flashed through my head when I heard this and I wanted to go searching for a duck. Then I realized how serious things were.)

I know this young man reasonably well and I also know his girlfriend. She is hands-down the most well put together young woman in Itipini. I can’t see how anyone could think she has been bewitched.

On Wednesday, the young man was mentally unwell and drunk. (In addition to the bush knife, he was walking around with a paint can full of home brew.) Understandably, he was making a lot of people nervous. So we called the police. No answer. (Really!) I took one of the pre-school teachers, Nthantisi, and went to drive to the station. On the way, Nthantisi was very critical of the station we were going to and said they wouldn’t help us. Instead, she called the local emergency number. They answered the phone and promised to come right down. Unfortunately, they didn’t know where Itipini is. (These are the police! They know everything!) So we waited to show them the way. After five or ten minutes, I suggested we call again to see what was going on. The folks at the local emergency number said police officers from our local station were on their way. That was the same local station Nthantisi had just been criticizing. So we returned to Itipini to wait for them. They never showed up. Itipini is less than five minutes from their station.

Mrs. Nani didn’t go back to her home on Wednesday afternoon and slept at a friend’s place. I wondered as I went to bed that night if she would be alive on Thursday.

I was wrong, thankfully. She lived. But late on Wednesday, her shack went up in flames. Absolutely nothing was saved.

The fire department had shown up long after the place was beyond saving. When I arrived this morning, it was still smoldering.

On Thursday morning, the young man was still around. Evidently, the community had performed a little vigilante justice, as he had a bandage across his head and looked like he’d been beaten up. (Why do they always wait until after the fact instead of intervening beforehand?) But he was also quite docile so Jenny took him and Mrs. Nani to the local police station. The young man was arrested and Mrs. Nani made her complaint. But later he was released and is now back in Itipini. Why? Because there's no food at the police station to feed the prisoners.

I’m only tangentially involved in this situation but I get only marginal satisfaction from the outcome. Mrs. Nani lost her home. And the young man isn’t getting what he needs either. Clearly, he needs medical care, mainly psychiatric and substance-related. Jenny commented that he looked pretty pathetic as he was led away.

What kind of police station makes you come to them to get service? Where were the police officers who might have been able to prevent this? And given how much of a problem substance abuse is in Itipini, where are the people and programs to help address those issues?

People in Itipini don’t treat each other right all the time, it’s true. But it seems like the government never treats them the way they deserve.